How to Draw Fabric So Your Portraits Look Realistic

You're working on a portrait, closer than ever to capturing the likeness in the face, but then you hit a snag — the clothes. The fabric folds are giving you serious jitters.

Deep breaths, there's no need to sweat this. Drawing realistic-looking fabric is mainly a matter of learning the right steps: breaking the fabric down into zones and studying the formula of light and shade in each. Below we break down the basics, then dive into a simple tutorial to help you master your next clothing-filled drawing.

Types of Basic Fabric Folds

When you're getting ready to draw fabric, always look out for the areas of tension or force that create wrinkles and folds. Here are some main types, with arrows noting the direction or movement of the folds.

Compression Wrinkles

In images 1 and 2 above, you can see compression wrinkles caused by the tension or force created by a moving body part, like an arm or an elbow.

Hanging Folds

Images 3 and 4 show the swag and hanging wrinkles that appear on fabric when it's clipped on both sides. You'll see those kinds of folds on Greco-Roman clothes, around the necklines.

Pipe Folds

Image 5 is an example of a pipe fold, which happens when a loose piece of fabric hangs freely. You'll typically see these in curtains, flags and the like.

Even if you can't remember the names of these folds, now you'll be able to start paying closer attention to the way they look and behave. For example, you can pick up on how wrinkles form where fabric sags or collapses. And as fabric wraps around a figure, you'll notice movement in relation to the figure itself, and how tension or force causes changes in folds.

Bringing in Light, Values and Pattern

 Aside from the way the fabric is resting, light, values and pattern also affect how the fabric looks in your drawing.


Every wrinkle or fold has the same basic breakdown of light and shade. When drawing, each fold is essentially a small cylinder with a highlight, middle tone, form shadow and reflected light. In the image above, you'll see labels marking each: the highlights (strongest areas of light); the medium light or middle tones; the form shadows (darkest areas in the shadow); and the reflected light (second-darkest shadow that sits on the edge of the fold).

Study this image carefully and start looking for the patterns in your fabric folds, since this variance in light will affect how you draw fabric on the page. A strong light source helps you see the value differences much more easily, whereas diffused light eliminates definite shadows and highlights, creating subtle shifts in tones.


Values are hugely important when it comes to creating a visual illusion on a flat surface. The photo on the left has its original color. The photo on the right is stripped of color, to reveal the values. Notice how a bright color can change our perception of values. In the grayscale image, you can clearly see the tonal transitions.


If you're a beginner, avoid drawing patterned fabric — all that detail and curvature can get confusing. If you're more advanced and feeling confident, give it a try. Just remember that as patterns curve around the roundness of the form and folds, parts of the pattern appear and disappear with the folds.

How to Draw Fabric

Now that you've got the basics, let's walk through how to draw fabric step by step, so you can make it look incredibly realistic.

1. Mark Movement

To start your drawing, mark the most prominent lines that show movement or specific direction. Place shadows on those lines.

2. Sketch the Outlines

Create separation between the light and the shade. Begin shading, focusing on the shadows first. For instance, you can draw the form shadow with the reflected light as a dark block, as you see here.

3. Deepen the Darkest Shadows and Fill in the Background

Fill in the middle tones roughly, to show a slight difference between the form shadow and the reflected light placed next to it. Pull out the highlights with a kneaded eraser.

As you shade, try visualizing the 3D quality of the fabric using the directional strokes, while keeping the parallel strokes in the background.

4. Evaluate the Contrast

Step back from your sketch so you can see if it has enough contrast, and don't be afraid to push the darks if needed. Reinforce the lights as well, keeping the lightest fold on the left (since that's where the light comes from).

Be sure to create transitions between the values, and make adjustments in the lines and edges to keep them soft. Fabric is fluid by nature, so it can't have hard, outlined edges or it won't look realistic.

When you're done, you may want to spray the drawing with a fixative outside.

Drawing Fabric in Colored Pencil

Drawing in color can be fun, yet more difficult because you're not only observing the pattern of light and shade, but also color temperature (cool or warm). Part of the trick is to match and layer colors of a specific tone. For example, a drawing of white silk can have cool shades of blue-gray in the shadow and warm shades of light cream and peach in the light. The complex white folds contrast the dark, simple background.

If you draw on colored paper, you need to layer white over the light colors. If you draw on white paper, the highlights stay free of any shading, since white pencil would make it cool and chalky. 

Learn More Now

Pick up more expert techniques for sketching, shading and finishing the human form draped in fabric in our class, Drawing the Draped Figure.

Meet your instructor, classical realism artist Matt Weigle, and learn about three of the most important basic fold techniques. Weigle walks you through ways to identify the pipe, zigzag and spiral folds before demonstrating how to set up and start blocking in your first sketches.

February 26, 2019
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How to Draw Fabric So Your Portraits Look Realistic